Social Media and Democracy: Social Performance by a Chinese Super Star Artist

Ai Weiwei is a world-famous artist based in China. He was detained for three months by the Chinese government earlier this year, and was ordered not to travel, speak in public or post to Twitter for a year. However, not long after his release, he started to post to Twitter and speak out again. He was recently sentenced to pay $2.3 million tax, but he has already collected about $1.4 million from his fans. His ‘tax battle’ against the government is called a ‘social performance.’

Article “Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Makes His Tax Battle A Social Performance” “How Chinese Activist Became an Internet Master”

As this article says, “when Beijing tax officials delivered the massive bill to him on Nov. 1, scanned versions appeared on his Google profile page within hours. Responses from his company’s lawyers and tax office receipts are also posted, as is a daily tally of money that supporters have sent. Volunteers even post pictures of the cash donations that land in his yard.”

Ai Weiwei is best known for his designing of the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium. For New Yorkers, he is known for the sculpture ‘Circle of Animals’ which was on view at the Central Park Grand Army Plaza earlier this year.

He is great as an artist, but what interests me more is that it is rather his social media than his art that made him an epitome of ‘freedom’ or ‘individualism’ in China. He also said, “the Internet is what affected me and has opened up so many doors and has ignited me.”

Although China does not allow access to Twitter, people find ways to work around that. Because Ai writes in Chinese, there are people who translate his words into English.

This 54-year-old man never used computer. He did not even know how to type until 2005. In 2005, he started to blog and has been drawn to Internet media so far.

In 2008, Ai recruited volunteers on Twitter to compile the names of thousands of students who died in poorly built schools that toppled during a massive earthquake in Sichuan. He posted the names to his blog. He later made an installation piece out of 9,000 children’s backpacks. The Chinese government shut down his blog in 2009, but he now has more than 110,000 followers at Twitter. He writes things such as “In an environment without public platform or protection for associations, the individual is the most powerful and most responsible” or “You have to act or the danger becomes stronger.”

Ai’s father was a poet in Mao Zedong’s era, and was accused of championing free speech. Ai flew to New York at the age of 24, and witnessed activists’ movements in New York during the 1980s. Therefore, his political consciousness must have been developed from his earlier days. Maybe he just did not have chances to express his thoughts, and social media opened up doors to him to hone his critical consciousness.

News about Ai Weiwei is being updated every moment now, and the world is talking about whether one artist can change China or not. I am not Chinese, and I do not know the answer. I do not know how Ai Weiwei’s social performance will end. However, one thing is for sure, I think. ‘Transparency’ and ‘openness’, which Social media can offer to anybody, are creating a new era for China.

A documentary film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” will be released soon.

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3 thoughts on “Social Media and Democracy: Social Performance by a Chinese Super Star Artist

  1. What I continue to find amazing is while many of us shy away from things like to twitter because of fear of privacy invasion, artist’s like Ai are using it as a means to communicate and to convey a message from a culture and government that doesn’t approve of it. Whether he is right or wrong is not something I will address, but rather it’s the use of social media to draw attention to one’s cause. Here, Ai, has used it as a public platform to shed some light on the Chinese government actions against him and bring it to the world wide stage. It undermines exactly what the government is trying to do and puts the government in an awkward position in that anything they do, will be subject to the court of public opinion. Interestingly enough, it seems that this idea of using twitter to bring attention to his cause or art may not be that popular in his home country. Perhaps things like individual Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are not in line with the collectivist culture and thought prominent in China. However, people and apps like these may be difficult to quill with the increased availability of technology. It will certainly be interesting to see how this all plays out in the months and years ahead as it will certainly impact future generations.

  2. This comment might not be rational as others because I am so stirring emotional while reading this.

    Weiwei Ai, is one famous artist who has an international influential but also a radical critic of Chinese politics. Ai claimed the reason why he’d like to do arts was just because he had nothing to do with Politics, or to evaded it. He went to Parsons in NYC and returned China in 90s. However, he started to express himself in works in terms of criticizing government and political issues. In 2005, he found a more effective way and became more active, in social media.

    He lashed out the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympic games as “fascism aesthetics“ which was more likely a laudation of national politics on blog.
    He also followed up the truth on Sichuan earthquake and kept twitting it as a volunteer, and got injured several times because of stepping into those accidents. He shot short documentary based on those experiences and want to publicize the world what he founded and what the government hid.
    He was a fighter, for justice and democracy.
    Ironically, I can only express myself here without any worries of being blocked or banned.

    I checked my Chinese Twitter( Weibo)everyday frequently, to avoid myself being detached from what’s going on back in China. It is now a era you cannot see the whole picture merely from the news source in public. You need to dig up more things from the grass roots and people around you.

    As a Chinese, I neither have no idea about the answer what will be the future of China. But I witnessed thousands of Chinese young people talking and exchanging their thoughts about government and those issues. Thanks to social media, for the civilians to speak out. Though some of the saying will be deleted by admin in few second, though sometimes we still see the government whitewash themselves in public, but we still have people like Weiwei Ai, who keep fighting for the real democracy and transparency in different social media platforms.

    It is an extremely hard process, since we have only one party, but we anticipate more and more voices. And one artist cannot change China, but his behaviors awake more to save the future.

    FYI, Ai’s father, Qing Ai, the very famous poet, named his son”weiwei”, which in Chinese ,means “future”.

  3. Thanks for great comments. I am so glad to know that ‘weiwei’ means ‘future’ in Chinese. I never knew that.
    I agree that no matter how the situation is in China, the growing number of people including Ai Weiwei who use social media contribute to bringing world’s attention to the issues in China and putting the Cummunist government in a tough situation. Some people worry that Ai Weiwei risks his life by posting everyghing to Internet and challenging the government. But I think Ai will not be in a dangerous situation because he is connected to millions of people through social media and he makes the world watch what’s going around him in China.

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